PHP Creator Didn’t Set Out to Create a Language

If you’ve ever been frustrated by PHP, even as you use it every day to create web applications, consider this: the language’s creator himself admits that he didn’t really set out to create a language. He had much more modest goals in mind.

Rasmus Lerdorf, the creator of the PHP programming language, revealed this at his talk about the past and future of PHP. He spoke at the O’Reilly Open Source Convention held earlier this month. “PHP doesn’t really blaze a trail of innovation,” Lerdorf noted.

To some, that comment might be an understatement. For example, developer Alex Munroe pointed to a long list of what he believed were bad design decisions behind PHP. “Virtually every feature in PHP is broken somehow. The language, the framework, the ecosystem, are all just bad. And I can’t even point out any single damning thing, because the damage is so systemic," he wrote

Munroe is not alone in his complaints. So why is PHP so bad? "I had no intention of writing a language. I didn’t have a clue how to write a language. I didn’t want to write a language," Lerdorf explained. "I just wanted to solve a problem of churning out Web applications very, very fast."

It’s also worth remembering that the language isn’t exactly new. It was created back in 1993. Lerdorf wrote it because he needed a way to handle simple interactive tasks without having to write a ton code. At first he turned to Perl, but had problems writing HTML code within a Perl program, due to Perl’s syntax rules. So he took the next step: he used Perl to put together his own language. "This simple thing turned out to be what PHP is today," he said.

For a bad language, PHP has gained an impressive following. Lerdorf estimates that PHP stands behind about half of the mouse clicks on the Internet. Yahoo, Facebook, Zynga, and most of the world’s blogs run on PHP. Most Asian e-commerce and social media sites – and many pornography sites – also use PHP.

So why is a bad language so successful? It works for the same reason animals like the anteater survive: it’s well-suited to its niche. “The focus wasn’t on the language itself, but on the ecosystem,” Lerdorf explained. As the World Wide Web began to emerge, back in 1993, it turned out that PHP played well with what were becoming its most important parts, such as web servers running Apache HTTP Server software.

So is PHP really a good language after all? Perhaps it’s neither good nor bad, but just the right language at the right time. As Lerdorf observed, PHP "is more about how easy it is for people to get started, without thinking too much about the technology…You can have the prettiest language in the world, but if it can’t talk to the back end, and you have no way to host it, it is useless."

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